Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV), a member of the family Bunyaviridae, genus Phlebovirus, is the causative agent of Rift Valley fever (RVF), a mosquito-borne disease of ruminant animals and humans. The generation of a large sequence database has facilitated studies of the evolution and spread of the virus. Bayesian analyses indicate that currently circulating strains of RVFV are descended from an ancestral species that emerged from a natural reservoir in Africa when large-scale cattle and sheep farming were introduced during the 19th century. Viruses descended from multiple lineages persist in that region, through infection of reservoir animals and vertical transmission in mosquitoes, emerging in years of heavy rainfall to cause epizootics and epidemics. On a number of occasions, viruses from these lineages have been transported outside the enzootic region through the movement of infected animals or mosquitoes, triggering outbreaks in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Madagascar, where RVF had not previously been seen. Such viruses could potentially become established in their new environments through infection of wild and domestic ruminants and other animals and vertical transmission in local mosquito species. Despite their extensive geographic dispersion, all strains of RVFV remain closely related at the nucleotide and amino acid level. The high degree of conservation of genes encoding the virion surface glycoproteins suggests that a single vaccine should protect against all currently circulating RVFV strains. Similarly, preservation of the sequence of the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase across viral lineages implies that antiviral drugs targeting the enzyme should be effective against all strains. Researchers should be encouraged to collect additional RVFV isolates and perform whole-genome sequencing and phylogenetic analysis, so as to enhance our understanding of the continuing evolution of this important virus. This review forms part of a series of invited papers in Antiviral Research on the genetic diversity of emerging viruses.
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